Edgardo Angara, author of the anticybercrime law, justifies it in this way: “Why was the penalty (for libel) raised? The only rationale I can think of is that because of the novelty and swiftness, and the spread and reach of information and communications technology, it becomes an aggravating circumstance. With one click, you can send it (the libelous statement) all over the world.”
That is all very well, except for one thing. Who’s to say a statement is libelous or not?
If this law had been in effect five months ago, Renato Corona might never have been ousted. Among the things that ousted him was the netizens themselves making their sentiments known to the senators—a thing that posed tremendous consequences for the elections. The wording of those sentiments would have made a great deal of them arguably libelous, or at least slanderous. Corona would have considered it so. The justices would have considered it so. They could have used the law to make an example of a blogger, Twitter-er, Facebook-er, or two to stop the tide of public outrage and vituperation against them.
With this law, no one will be called a thief again. No one will be called an opportunist, fascist, or idiot again. No one will be called a politician with the morals of a prostitute again. No one may be permitted to say so—except Miriam Defensor-Santiago.
But this is just the tip of the iceberg about what’s wrong with the law. The bulk of it is that by looking at the possible abuses of cyberspace, the law turns a blind eye to its awe-inspiring power to make the public matter in social discourse. By attempting to curb the excesses of cyberspace, the law curbs instead its history-altering capacity to effect change. The medium is new and it is novel. Which only drives home the point that the law was made by people who are either clueless about it, or glimpse its power and want precisely to stop it from subverting their entrenched position.
In fact, cyberspace is the most liberating and democratizing force to have come to us in a long time, perhaps for the first time.
Elsewhere in the world we’ve seen that—in the Arab Spring, or the uprisings in Egypt and neighboring countries against despotic rule. WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, had a point when he told a sideline meeting of the UN recently that Barack Obama was a hypocrite to say that America was the inspirer of those revolts: “It must come as a surprise to Tunisians (that) the US supported the forces of change in Tunisia.” In fact, he said, WikiLeaks had more to do with it, with its exposés of the nastiness of the now deposed rulers, among them Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But we see as well in Assange’s fate—he has been forced to hide in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the heart of London to avoid being fed to the wolves—what an anticybercrime law has in store for transgressors.
Closer to home, you see the immense power of cyberspace to democratize this country in a couple of ways.
One is that it offers a way for the citizens to get back at the people who oppress them. Certainly, it offers a way to put the corrupt to shame. Which makes it the most ironic thing in the world that the anticybercrime law was passed under the very government that professes to fight corruption. I’ve said it again and again: Government alone cannot stop corruption, it needs the help of the public to do it. The public can do that by making the corrupt pay a high price for corruption.
That is how it’s done in other countries. In Japan and Korea, the culture itself does the trick: Shame and dishonor are enough to make the shamed and dishonored disembowel themselves. In America and Western Europe, public opinion does the trick: Public revulsion and opprobrium are enough, if not to make the publicly reviled and detested hang themselves, at least to make them resign.
Here, it’s cyberspace, which is far more spontaneous and unfettered than the mainstream media and, more importantly, which directly reflects the views of the public, that has the potential, and power, to do that.
With one click, calling someone a crook will be sent all over the world? Well, if he is a crook—and the public officials netizens call so are invariably so—I’m glad the information is sent instantaneously to the world. Certainly I’m glad it is sent instantaneously to the person concerned, the better for him to know that we know, mahiya ka sa balat mo, naturingan ka pa namang public servant.
Two, and far more importantly, like I said last time, what makes the Western democracies real democracies is that the people do not just participate in national life by voting but by shaping policies and decision-making through public opinion. That public opinion isn’t expressed only when survey-takers ask them what they think of things, it is expressed voluntarily, constantly, naturally. It’s not sporadic, it’s permanent. It’s not occasional, it’s continuous. It’s not a footnote to governance, it’s the text of governance.
More than anything else, it’s cyberspace that has made that possible for us. Almost unnoticed, it has come to us like a gift from the gods. Overnight it has become possible for ordinary citizens (the youth in particular) to have their say on life, without having to go to the radio to complain, without having to write letters to the editor (and compete with a thousand other letters) to set things right, without feeling powerless in the face of being wooed like lovers as voters but dismissed like beggars as citizens.
And the senators—with the luminous exception of T.G. Guingona who had the imagination to vote against the law, and who continuously oppose the law—will spit on this gift as though it were a curse. No wonder the netizens are fit to be tied.
And government is clueless why.